I’ve been meaning to read this book for a little while – since it came out, in fact. I’ve read one of Tsiolkas’ earlier novels, and while it was pretty confronting, it remains in my mind. Something clearly worked. So has he created another memorable story?
At an innocent summer barbeque, where friends and family are hanging out and relaxing, one event will shape and change the following year for eight people in ways they had not imagined. One slap will force friends and family to draw lines, to take sides, and to question who they are, and question beliefs of their own.
Tsiolkas truly is one of the best novelists this country has at the moment. His ability to be pitch-perfect on so many topics and ideas is astounding, and whether this is because he has such a unique background, or because he’s just has an amazing imagination is not important. He manages to create characters that are real, believable, and above all, sympathetic. Each and every chapter, you totally understand what and why these people are thinking, and each truly believes they are totally justified in their actions. And while each reader will take their own side of the debate, this novel touches a part of Australian culture that is often skimmed over.
Just as in Steven Carroll’s Miles Franklin winner, suburbia becomes a place where different people come to live together, and while Carroll deals with gender roles, Tsiolkas deals with ethnicity as a vital part of the points of view of each of these characters – not surprising, considering his own background. And while the Greeks are the dominant ethnic group featured here, Tsiolkas presents us with an Australia that consists of white Australians, Indians, Greeks and more. This is the Australia that we have become, and the Australia that perhaps we will see more and more of in the future.
Each of the stories, while relating to the slap at the barbeque, are essentially separate short stories, each on dealing with the quirks and back story of each of these characters. There is continuity throughout the year, as each of these people try to come to grips with the emerging views of the people they thought they knew. I would have liked to have seen the last two chapters swapped around – I think the symmetry of having the husband narrate the beginning, and the wife narrating the end would have been nice. Mind you, the last chapter does seem to be a kind of epilogue – the second last chapter (narrated by Aisha, Hector’s wife) does seem to bring the story to a close. I wonder, then, how much Richie, the character of the last story, is actually like Tsiolkas himself – Richie is a gay teenager who has just finished school, and is trying to deal with all of these things the best way he can. There are some touching chapters as well – Manolis, Hector’s father, becomes the voice of the older generations, the people who feel out of touch with the younger world, and don’t understand all the fuss that is going on. For Manolis, family and loyalty are everything, and he doesn’t understand that loyalty could present itself in other places. Even Rosie (the mother of the slapped child) managed to gain some of my sympathy in her story, despite my major disagreement with her course of action in response to the slap.
I really hope this book does wonders for Tsiolkas’ career. I think The Slap dilutes some of his earlier edginess, but in doing so, allows him to mellow out his characters, make them more accessible, and ultimately send his message to more people. Not that I am advocating dumbing down, or anything. The Slap is certainly more readable than his earlier work. But it is still very good – because Tsiolkas’ observations about what Australia is are totally spot on.